This week, it feels as though everything has changed in my life except my name. I’ve moved from Bali to Singapore, gone from solitary writer to connected one (thanks to the readers of WSJ Expat), and wrapped up life for my kids' summer. My life has turned from orderly to disoriented, my mind from quiet to noisy, and my personal goals from ongoing to pause. It’s all both exciting and disorienting. I’m spending a lot of time inside on the Internet connecting with other expats. A whole new foreign country is challenging me outside. My daily rituals, predictable schedule, and circle of friends that normally hold me together have completely come apart. I feel as though my life has turned to liquid – free and flowing, but also uncontained and transparent.
In other words, I am struggling to feel like “myself” under the present circumstances. Which makes me wonder, how can that be? How can one’s sense of self just disappear like that, poof, into the thin air of change? What is actually happening?
And how can I get back to feeling like me as soon as possible?
It’s all just identity jet lag
In reality, argues Harvard Professor of Psychology Dan Gilbert, that “I” I’m looking for right now is always a shifting target. It just moves faster during times of big change. “Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished,” he says in his Ted Talk (nicely excerpted in the “Shifting Time” episode of NPR’s Ted Radio Hour).
In other words, I’m just experiencing a kind of identity jet lag. The self I felt yesterday is gone. The self I feel today will be different tomorrow. A decade out, I won’t even remember the disoriented person I am now. “The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you've ever been. The one constant in our life is change,” he says.
So embrace it and let the rest go, seems to be the takeaway. Like adjusting to a new time zone, I’ll slowly develop a new rhythm. I’ll slot in a new coffee shop for my old favorite. I’ll figure out new routines and task lists. My mind won’t necessarily fill in the big gap I’ve crossed, but it will eventually build me a new life one floor up. The light on my “self” will go back on.
This is all well and good. But it doesn’t keep me from waking up in the middle of the night right now. I feel like a dancer stuck in a pirouette, spinning and spinning, in desperate need of a focal point to keep me from feeling so dizzy. Where should I look? What is the most anchoring spot?
Stare at the camera, and then beyond it
As life would have it, the wisdom I need was given to me weeks earlier. My last full weekend in Bali, my friend and accomplished photographer Alina Vlasova took my portrait. We’re exploring an art project that examines cultural identities and wanted to play around with images of mine.
At first, I felt like I was in a mall studio posing for a Christmas card. Alina told me to try moving around so I mimicked movie stars – angled a little to the left, tipped my chin up a bit, leaned coolly against the wall. But each time the camera clicked, I felt like a fake poser, embarrassed by my attempts to be someone bigger than I really am.
“Don’t look at the camera,” Alina coached me. “Look through it.” I tried to heed her advice but I couldn’t visualize what she was saying. Look at the white pillar behind her? The palm trees in the yard? The rice field paddy beyond? Click, click, click… tens of shots went by that didn’t seem to capture my “self.”
She tried again. “Look right into the lens and imagine the ocean is in there.” All I could see was my miniaturized reflection in the glass. The lens eye shut and closed, shut and closed. It seemed much more in control than I felt at that moment.
“Think of why we’re doing this,” she said. Right. Surely the goal of the project – to compare our phenotypes with our interior cultural identities – would be enough to make me forget myself. But all this did was make my mind even busier. How would we show the latter? Photoshop? Costume changes?
Then Alina paused to make adjustments to her camera and I reached for a cup of coffee. I’m always close to something warm, a habit I developed in China where the quest to find soups, teas and hot water to warm the soul can sometimes feel like a national pastime. I thought about all the bone-chilling ice water I drank in Pennsylvania as the only Indian-American child in a very small town. I spent much of my youth adopting Western habits to try and disguise the fact that I was Indian. Now I was fixing images of my exterior to tell my story of a rainbow interior.
This line of thinking went beyond the project’s aim to something bigger. Where could these pictures actually go? Maybe, just maybe, some little Indian girl out there in the world might see the work Alina and I create and stop drinking her own metaphorical ice water. Wouldn't that be amazing?
The more I imagined the project’s potential, the more relaxed I got. It was as if my present, past and future selves came together and expanded into something too big for any of the individual pieces to matter anymore. When Alina and I returned to our places, I saw beyond the lens to my child-self comforted somewhere else in the future, and she liked what she photographed.
Now I think the same can be done to my new life in Singapore. To overcome identity jet lag, I need to set forward a new vision and peg that to my mental wall. Then all else will adjust and still.
Photo credit: Ravi K. Jolly, you can see more of his wonderful work at flickr.com/ravikjolly.